Nuclear energy will always be too dangerous for Singapore

Written by Ng E-Jay
14 March 2011

At a keynote address during the Singapore International Energy Week in 2010, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the challenges that Singapore will face in the coming years in dealing with scarce global energy resources. [1]

PM Lee also briefly mentioned the prospect of building a nuclear power plant in Singapore. This was what he said:

Globally, nuclear energy would be an important part of the solution to mankind’s energy problems and to tackle global warming. It is clean, it gives off low carbon emissions, in fact no carbon emissions, but of course harnessing nuclear energy is a complex and long term enterprise. There are significant issues relating to safety and the nuclear fuel cycle and disposal of nuclear waste. And there is often strong resistance in countries, from the Green movement, from populations who have witnessed accidents like Chernobyl and are fearful and anxious about their safety. But if we look at this rationally, without nuclear energy, the world cannot make sufficient progress in dealing with global warming.

For Singapore, our small size poses additional challenges. Safety is a major concern because of our high urban density. A plant, if we ever build one, is very difficult to put very far from the population because no place in Singapore is far from population. And yet we cannot afford to dismiss the option of nuclear power altogether. So we should keep up with new developments, the technologies are advancing, smaller, safer reactors with more fuel efficient designs that reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced, and we must keep up with experiences in other countries, how they are using it, how they are deploying it, how they are managing the sentiments and concerns of the population and working out practical, sensible solutions to these problems. It will be a long time before we make any decision on nuclear energy but we should get ourselves ready to do so. And that means to give Singapore the ability to exercise the option should it one day become necessary and feasible. Therefore we have to start building up the capabilities now, to get in touch with the experts in the field, to train a few of our own engineers and scientists and then we can critically assess developments in nuclear technology and decide on the feasibility of nuclear deployment one day in the future.

The recent tragedy in Japan has brought home a very stark reminder of just how grave the safety issues concerning nuclear power plants are.

Over the weekend, Japan has fought round the clock to avert a meltdown at two reactors in the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma.

As of Sunday, the situation has only gotten worse, and Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has admitted that the explosion at Reactor 1 could only have been caused by a reactor meltdown. [2]

Street demonstrations have been reported in the major news wires. People are angry that the Japanese authorities commissioned nuclear power plants to be built so close to geological fault lines despite prior protests that such a decision was highly unwise. Now, the people’s worst fears have been realised, and they are venting their anger and frustration at the government.

Singapore is relatively well-insulated from the geological fault lines near the western coast of Sumatra. However, this does not mean that we are free from danger.

As PM Lee has stated, our high urban density poses a safety issue. It is impossible to locate a nuclear power plant built here far from population areas. If anything should happen, even a small accident, the safety of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands would be immediately put at risk.

Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is located 300 km away from Tokyo. By comparison, Singapore only stretches 50 km coast to coast.

PM Lee is of the opinion that the nuclear power option cannot be dismissed entirely, and that Singapore must keep abreast with advances in technology to prepare itself for the day when nuclear power might become necessary and feasible.

However, no matter how technology advances, Singapore’s small size and high population density means that the potential risk for us will always be extremely high, far greater than compared to other countries.

In Japan, thousands are now put at risk of radiation poisoning. If a similar accident were to occur in Singapore, 6 million people will be immediately put in grave danger. And that is not including our neighbours Johor and Sumatra.

In my opinion, nuclear energy for Singapore cannot be made more feasible simply by advances in technology. The risk will always be too high. Public concerns and sentiment will be almost impossible to manage. Mutual suspicion from our neighbours will also compound the issue and make it intractable.

As seductive as nuclear energy is, Singapore cannot afford it.

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[1] Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Address at the 2010 Singapore Energy Lecture, Singapore International Energy Week, 01 Nov 2010.

[2] Japanese Government Confirms Meltdown, Stratfor, 12 March 2011.

  1. Of course it is dangerous; any nuclear facilities placed in/near the ring of fire is simply placing LPG tank in the fire and waiting for it to blow. Case-n-point, the recent Tsunami in Ja[pan has resulted in two nuclear facilities having a meltdown with the riods 3 meters above the coolant. I am sure, the ‘ol argument for the nuclear reactors in Japan was; we will engineer the safety features and that not even an “earthquake can cause problems”: my guess is that these are the famous last words. Singapore is geologically not stable being a few hundred kilometers from the faultlines in fact singapore has vents in the form of “hotspings” hence, nuclear facilities would be catestrophic for the region, not only singapore.

  2. I do not agree. Advances in technology is driven by the desire to solve problems. If nuclear power is the solution to the energy problem, then these nuclear plants will eventually be able to make their way into populated areas. It is just a matter of time that the risks of having a nuclear plant is reduced to a minimum such that they are outweighed by the benefits of having them.

  3. The risk of fission technology in my opinion cannot possibly drop below a certain level no matter how science advances. Think of it as a horizontal asymptote.

  4. That would be the nuclear power plant in Japan that just underwent what is basically a worst-case scenario and currently shows no signs of having actually caused any real health or environmental hazards? Jumping the gun a bit, aren’t they?
    I suppose they prefer having oil refineries and pipelines ruptured and burning and leaking all over.

  5. Hi eJay:

    First and foremost, nice choice of picture you have, We also settled on this one coincidentally at NAR.

    Actually, I do not think this spells the end of the use of nuclear energy. 1950s technology have demonstrated the effectiveness of Thorium Molten Salt based reactors which are safer and have lower risks of meltdown unlike the uranium-based one at Fukushima.

    Furthermore, the thorium-based reactors offers engineering simplicity and safety, which makes it less expensive to build.

    I feel it is always a game of statistical odds. What are the odds of us being affected by climate change and the chance of a freak accident?

  6. erm actually isnt most of the malfunctions in japan because of the earthquake? since singapore doesn’t get earthquakes wont it stand to reason most likely nuclear power plants wont blow up?

    i’m just sayin…

  7. Nuclear power creates 0.93 Terawatts of energy in the world as of 2006 and even more as of date, ranking fourth behind Hydroelectricity, Coal and Oil. Also, nuclear power is the most cost efficient power source in the world and has 95% of its maxima energy output, the highest of all sources in the world. Plus, it only produces 90 to 140g of CO2 per megawatt hour, much less than most other forms of energy. It is also a sustainable form of energy and uranium which is used to power it is cheap and easily found.
    Also, as long as we can find a suitable geographical location, have a good reactor design, and well trained staff, nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and some others can be avoided. Also, the Three Mile Island Accident was due to a system failure and with the help of professionals, it was stopped in time. Although it led to a nuclear meltdown, no one was injured or harmed in any way.
    Thus, I see no reason why Singapore shouldn’t build a nuclear powerplant as a form of energy.
    (Although there is no way at the moment to contain radioactivity, the only way to assure people that this will not happen is to take measures to prevent it from even happening in the first place by learning from previous failures in this industry.)

  8. Singapore should go for thorium nuclear power not uranium nuclear power. Its so much safer. Thorium nuclear power plants do not produce harmful radiation, operates at low pressure so it cant explode, does not have runaway reactions, produce only abit of low level waste. The best part is thorium is alot more energy dense and is cheaper and more abundant than uranium. It also cant be made into weapons and the technology is already in use in amercia, china and india. Most people believe nuclear power is dangerous, but there already nuclear technologies that have none of the problems associated with uranium nuclear power. Fukashima was a uranium plant not a thorium plant.